Primary Justice Models in the American Legal System

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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With justice a decision of action that is fair and results in equality is considered ethically correct. “Justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, or equity. It is also the act of being just and/or fair” (Knauerhaze, 2012 pg 1 para 6). In America, tens of thousands of people come through the justice system each day. Whether it be in traffic court or criminal court our system can sometimes feel more like a factory processing people and cases so quickly they can’t all come to the correct conclusions.

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The basis of the legal system thrives to operate based off fairness and equality, but does that always happen? It is important to understand that psychology plays a large role in our legal system because the what people perceive is fair and just, is ultimately the reality. This paper will explain and then dissect the differences between the three known justice models, Distributive, Procedural, and Commonsense. All of which are working to ensure the American justice system does run fairly and ethically from all perceptions.

Procedural Justice

Research in the American criminal justice system shows that how people are treated during their experience with the justice system matters, regardless of the verdict in their case, this idea is known as Procedural Justice (Bruno, 2004). This model has been tested in everything from police stops to court rooms to prisons and jails and has statistically raised overall trust and perception of the law. Procedural Justice has four main elements, understanding, neutrality, voice, and respect. Understanding speaks to a citizen feeling like they have a clear understanding of their legal rights and procedures. 

Neutrality essentially translates to equality in the sense that all citizens must feel that the process before them is clear and applies to everyone regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age or any other factors. Voice refers to you, the citizen, having the opportunity to tell your side of the story to the length you wish. And Respect, that one is pretty simple, it means you feel you are being and have been treated with dignity and that your rights as an American citizen were respected. This may all seem like common sense, the way most people want to be treated and treat others, but when these four, basic ideas are applied to the justice system, research clearly shows that public trust in the system is generated. When these steps are followed, receiving a traffic ticket may still be upsetting, but maybe more understood and accepted by the person breaking the law.

The problem? It sounds like eutopia. Not every member of law enforcement or the justice system follows these four key values all of the time, things get in the way, people are understaffed or underpaid, or flustered or frustrated. And most importantly, their human. But this approach costs nothing to apply and can easily improve public trust and safety.

Distributive Justice, sometimes referred to as “the relationship lens” looks to ensure a fair outcome for all. John Rawls, a moral and political philosopher, wrote A Theory of Justice, in 1971, where he explains his model for identifying what is unfair and how someone could properly express an unfair situation or feeling. In social psychology, distributive justice is defined as perceived fairness of how costs and rewards are shared or distributed to members of a community. A good way to think about this is if two people work for the same company and do the same job but one gets paid more, distributive justice has not occurred. 

Robert Nozick, another American philosopher, spent a good amount of his career at odds with Rawls and his theory of distributive justice. He takes a strong stance against many of Rawls theories but when referring to distributive justice he argues that property that is rightly entitled to someone else should never be distributed to others. Has anyone ever asked you, “What’s in it for me?” or say, “I want this in return.” Distributive Justice is thought to essentially be a new dimension of exchange theory, a sociological and psychological theory that refers to the social behavior of two parties when a cost-benefit exchange is occurring. The action of sharing and balancing the cost and rewards between two or more parties is the basics behind Distributive Justice.

The negative side of distributive justice is that you cannot simply look at a snapshot of what someone has at any given moment and use that to determine whether something is just or not. Sometimes you need to know how people have acquired what they have or how they came upon this situation. When you think about what makes something just or unjust you think about not just who has what compared to whom but where it came from. For example, say you are walking down the street and find a wallet, you pick it up and find that it contains $500. You don’t think “Where is the least advantaged class, I want to give them this $500.” You would naturally look at the ID in the wallet and locate the person it belongs to because this money belongs to that person.

Commonsense Justice aligns the analysis of citizens agreements with the set criminal code (Green & Heilbrun 2019). It is a much broader method than both Procedural or Distributive justice and takes a more proportional approach to the outcome in a given situation (Green & Heilbrun, 2019). Where your average person would consider all the events leading up to a crime and maybe even those after, this justice model focuses solely on the act itself in an effort to gain a more clear and precise judgment. The cons of Commonsense Justice seem to be in its description, a person is not able to mentally hone into one moment in a person’s life. They must know the events leading up to the moment as well as the results of this person’s actions. The big picture matters to people and is difficult to ignore.


It is clear that the concept of “justice” will likely always be debatable. All across the world justice is debated on a small level between children feeling things are unfair all the way up to the supreme Court of the United States. It seems likely that the concept of Procedural Justice seems the most logical to implement because it brings us back to who we are as human beings at our core, good and fair, and we should treat others this way as well. Electing leaders who promote this type of fairness and rhetoric will help us to get there, but ultimately it is a choice we make for ourselves.


  1. Bruno, S. (2004). Introducing Procedural Utility: Not Only What, but Also How Matters. Retrieved from
  2. Green, E., & Heilbrun, K. (2019). Wrightsman’s psychology and the legal system. Boston, MA: Cengage. Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
  3. Knauerhaze, C. (2012, May 23). What Does Justice Mean to You? Retrieved from
  4. Roemer, J. (1998). Theories of Distributive Justice. Retrieved from justice&ots= 5tI-ErbBl&sig=hU4T915assBhgRkCMb6Z RyBE1A8#v=onepage&q=distributive justice&f=false-
  5. Harvard University Press
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Primary Justice Models In The American Legal System. (2021, Oct 15). Retrieved from